Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Hateful Eight


In 1967, Roy Orbison starred in his one and only film: a lightweight and gimmicky western called ‘The Fastest Guitar Alive’. It wasn’t a successful endeavour for anyone concerned. Orbison wrote a passel of bland songs for the soundtrack, only one of which – ‘There Won’t Be Many Coming Home’ – had anything specific to say. The producers, concerned that it was too serious and not in keeping with the film’s lighthearted tone, removed it. Forty-eight years later, Orbison’s civil war ballad is restored to the soundtrack of a western. A Quentin Tarantino western. And if the producers of ‘The Fastest Guitar Alive’ thought it sounded too serious in that film, it comes off as downright flippant here. Tarantino’s use of the Orbison song is the final irony in a 70mm epic that spends three hours bristling with irony, righteous anger and the kind of wallowing self-indulgence that characterises its director's approach to filmmaking.

Now, regular readers of this irregularly updated blog (I tries, folks, I really does) will know that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Tarantino fan. I can entirely appreciate why people don’t dig his work, and completely sympathise with those whom it renders decidedly uneasy. But, because of a number of interrelating vectors, from being blown away by ‘Reservoir Dogs’ at the impressionable age of twenty, to meeting the man himself two years later when he was guest of honour at the Broadway Cinema’s Shots in the Dark festival, the trajectory of my cinephilia has progressed in tandem with Tarantino’s career. He’s the only director whose entire filmography I’ve seen on the big screen.

So, yes: I likes me some Tarantino. I even like ‘Death Proof’. And I don't edge uneasily back from his work, convinced he’s a racist because his scripts use the N-word. No racist would gift such iconic parts to black actors. What I’m not sure about, however, is his attitude to women, and nowhere have I had such doubts than with ‘The Hateful Eight’. Reader, I’m going to come straight out with it: ‘The Hateful Eight’ is the first time I’ve come out of a Quentin Tarantino film not quite sure what to make of it.

It’s been about a week since I saw the film and the more I think about it, the more I’m tempted to narrow down my rationale to one of two options:

1) Tarantino, deciding that his usual critics will accuse him of racism anyway, structures a three-hour roadshow epic in such a way that his audience will be sent stumbling into the intermission in the immediate aftermath of an almost Shakespearian soliloquy, delivered in half-mocking-half-menacing fashion by Samuel L Jackson, the (ahem) thrust of which is the phrase “big black dingus”;

2) It’s a remake of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ disguised as a remake of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ with Kurt Russell in the Kurt Russell role and a certain interchangeability between Jennifer Jason Leigh and Channing Tatum as regards the role of the thing.

Either way, it’s a film of two halves. The first documents the stormy stagecoach journey that brings bounty hunter John Ruth (Russell) and his shackled charge Daisy Domergue (Leigh) – the running joke about the mispronunciation of her surname is the script’s subtlest aspect – to Minnie’s Haberdashery en route to the town of Red Rock (aficionados of ‘Django Unchained’ won’t be surprised at the ‘Blazing Saddles’ homage). En route, Ruth reluctantly ends up giving a lift to fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) and Red Rock’s sheriff-to-be Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Arriving at their stop, Ruth and Warren are suspicious that Minnie (Dana Gourrier) and her husband and business partner Sweet Dave (Gene Jones) are nowhere to be seen and the establishment has been left under the stewardship of taciturn Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir). Also at Minnie’s, seeking shelter from the storm, are dandy English hangman Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth) – the proximity of the character’s name to notorious blackshirt Oswald Mosley cannot be coincidental – enigmatic cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and doddery Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). What follows is a series of variations on a theme, the theme being how downright fucking loathsome all of these individuals are in their own special way. Racism, snobbery, intransigence, intolerance and the deep social, political and geographical divisions created by the civil war all come to the fore. At one point, various parties suggest that the cabin itself be divided in two (I couldn’t help but think of the ‘Steptoe and Son’ episode where Albert and Harold reduce the family home to a microcosm of apartheid) as a temporary alternative to killing each other.

The second half is marked by at least two tonal shifts, the first of which is done to brilliant effect. The linear, classical storytelling of the first half goes out of the window, to be replaced with voiceover, flashbacks, shifting perspectives … basically, the whole non-linear playbook that Tarantino has delved into with zero restraint throughout his career. For approximately half an hour, ‘The Hateful Eight’ morphs into an Agatha Christie locked room mystery, with Warren in the Miss Marple role, if Miss Marple packed a pair of pistols and everyone in St Mary Mead used the word “nigger” like it was going out of style. This, for me, was easily the most focused part of the proceedings and I could happily have watched “Samuel L Jackson in a drawing room mystery with swearing and pistol whipping” for the rest of the movie; however Tarantino curtails this section with a short sharp shock of a rug pull, immediately seguing into an extended flashback that manages to be sweatily tense even though we all know, by this point, exactly how it’s going to play out.

Then we’re back to the present and the final act. Which is where the film seems to start juggling desperately – it’s a state of the nation piece; no wait, it’s an essay on how ideology deflates in the face of survivalism; no wait, it’s a variation on the theme of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”; no wait, it’s a Corbucci checklist replete with amoral cynicism and violence against women; no wait, it’s an ugly ironic statement on how liberal hand-wringing for interracial tolerance is founded on the big self-delusion of the liberal hand-wringer wanting to feel better about themself – and never fully commits to a final statement. Maybe this is what Tarantino intended. Or maybe he just decided that America – and by extension the world – is fucked and the best we can do is laugh at the sheer absurdity of it while we pointlessly kill each other.

Whichever, this is Tarantino we’re talking about and the man couldn’t do existential despair if he binged on Bergman, Tarkovsky and Tarr for a year. And that’s what gives ‘The Hateful Eight’ its wilful perversity: never mind the unpleasant places it goes, Tarantino’s sheer exhilaration in the process of film-making is splattered across every frame like a valentine’s love heart made of blood squibs.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Spectre


For all of the things that it did well, 'Skyfall' remains, for me, an awkward movie. Certainly an awkward Bond movie. On the one hand, it strives to be resolutely unBondian, documenting its protagonist's psychological depletion and building towards a low-key finale (by the standards of the franchise, anyway) in which 007's past is effectively obliterated; yet on the other, it shamelessly panders to the fan-boys (the Aston Martin with modifications; M's old office). 'Skyfall' stretches an act of transition across two plus hours, maneouvring Daniel Craig's Bond from the origin story and flawed coda of 'Casino Royale' and 'Quantum of Solace' respectively to a point of reference recognisable from the early Connery to mid-period Moore years.
 
'Spectre' was mouth-watering in its potential: a cold, ruthless Bond going head to head with a re-imagined Blofeld, the antagonist back after a decades-long rights wrangle.

Then the reviews started coming in and they were lukewarm; some outright hostile. With expectations at rock-bottom, I hauled myself off to my local multiplex and caught a screening the day before its run ended. Maybe it was the low expectations that did it, maybe it's because I never quite embraced 'Skyfall' the way everybody else seemed to, but I enjoyed 'Spectre' a lot.

There are, I should add with some degree of haste, caveats. First and foremost, 'Spectre' suffers from a two-and-a-half hour running time not remotely bolstered by anything resembling a plot. "Bond looks into some things that pissed him off from the earlier movies" is about as sophisticated as things get narratively. Basically, Bond receives a posthumously instruction from Judi Dench's M to take out an entirely disposable bad guy, after which he joins a series of heavily telegraphed dots, finally ending up at a secret base owned and operated by our old mate Ernst Stavro. Said dots serve as a tying up of loose ends from the preceding three movies (Quantum, in turns out, is little more than a sub-contractor to Spectre), but whereas those movies each have something at stake, the only thing 007 seems to be racing against the clock to prevent is the new M (Ralph Fiennes) being made redundant.

In a subplot that has more nuance and credibility than the main action, an MI5/MI6 merger is on the cards and politically-savvy hatchet man Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) is hellbent on shutting down the Double-O programme while brokering an information-sharing agreement between security services on a global level. There was a moment in the film where I really hoped that Christoph-Waltz-as-villain was merely a feint and Scott would be revealed as Blofeld, nicely exploiting his already iconic turn as Moriarty in 'Sherlock'. But no. Waltz plays Hans Oberhauser, a figure from Bond's past who fakes his own death and re-invents himself. Blofeld's his mother's name. Yes, the revelation really is that ho-hum.

On the plus side, however, the pre-credits sequence is Craig's best yet (which is saying something after the fantastic set piece that kicked off 'Skyfall'). Even its immediate supplanting by Sam Smith's truly fucking horrible theme song and a title design that is bizarre to the point of hallucinatory can't detract from how good it is. Even if it does homage 'For Your Eyes Only' a little too slavishly. The rest of the action more or less maintains the quality: a car chase, a plane/jeep chase (one of the film's best self-contained sequences), a speedboat/helicopter chase, a shedload of explosions and an extended bout of hand-to-hand combat in the narrow confines of a train. Even if it does homage 'From Russia With Love' a little too slavishly.

In fact, let's just call it: 'Spectre' is the most self-reflexive Bond movie since 'Die Another Day' wallowed in the non-hilarity of its parade of in-jokes. Granted, director Sam Mendes and scripters John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth attempt to work them cohesively into the narrative, but it doesn't take long for deja vu to set in. In addition to the above cited examples, we have the mountaintop clinic from 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', lifestyle porn hospitality as a prelude to torture from 'Dr No', and the collapsing building/trapped heroine finale from 'Casino Royale'.

Speaking of the heroine, let's drag this review back on course and notch up another high point for 'Spectre'. All hail Lea Seydoux, the most capable Bond girl and character-in-her-own-right since Diana Rigg provided the franchise’s apex in this regard in 'OHMSS'. And also the most unlikely. Seydoux plays Madeleine Swann (a clunky but more-or-less thematically valid nod to Proust) – Mr White (Jesper Christensen)'s daughter. Not much further down the cast list, but with criminally less screen time, Monica Bellucci provides Bond with the frisson of a dalliance with a woman who isn't young enough to be his daughter; although she's little more than a plot device to take Bond one step closer to Spectre and Blofeld, she achieves an edgy chemistry with Craig that works to the film's benefit.

There's also a nice vibe going on between M, Q (Ben Wishaw), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). Mendes has great fun throwing them together for a little fieldwork during the extended (perhaps overly extended) finale.

And here I find myself unable to escape the defining tone of this review: everything I liked about 'Spectre', every aspect of it I thoroughly enjoyed, triggers a caveat. Believe me, I'd love to have pounded out 1,000 breathless words, adjectives cascading like spent cartridges from a semi-automatic weapon*, and sung its praises. But there's no avoiding the fact that 'Spectre' is flawed; not tonally as 'Skyfall' was, but structurally and narratively. Simply introducing Blofeld as a fully formed supervillain and giving him some kind of doomsday device would have helped matters no end. After pursuing the Bond origin story and its psychological fallout over three consecutive films, staging 'Spectre' as the Blofeld origin story seems equally transitional. Maybe next time we'll get a straight-down-the-line Bond movie.



*Yeah: I’m classy, me.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Play Motel


You know when you’re in poor company with a giallo when it’s basically a blue movie with a hint of murder mystery thrown in. You know you’re in poor company when it stars Ray Lovelock (ever seen ‘Oasis of Fear’, ‘Almost Human’ or ‘The Seventh Woman’? I have, and I’d rather put in several hours of unpaid overtime at work than watch them again). You know you’re in poor company when it’s directed by Mario Gariazzo (the anti-talent behind porno ‘Exorcist’ knock off ‘L’ossessa’ and lame cannibal snore-fest ‘Amazonia: the Catherine Miles Story’).

And you know you’re in poor company when a movie configured to incorporate the maximum possible nudity utterly fails to generate any eroticism. Let’s be honest, in the bottom-of-the-barrel sub-genre that is the giallo-sex-film, ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ and ‘The Sister of Ursula’ are better works of cinema.

With all of that in mind, are you ready to check into the Play Motel? If so, let’s spend a few words considering the title. As far as I can tell, that’s the only moniker the film goes by, which makes in quite rare in the annals of Italian exploitation cinema, where even something as auteurish (and more or less mainstream) as Argento’s ‘Profondo Rosso’ – literally translated as ‘Deep Red’ for the English-speaking markets – was also variously known as ‘The Hatchet Murders’ and ‘The Shiver of Agony’, and Mario Bava’s ‘A Bay of Blood’ has more aliases than a master criminal. But no, ‘Play Motel’ doesn’t even allow me to indulge this review with an Italian title like ‘Fotografie compromettenti in strano motel’ which at least sounds elegant even though it patently isn’t.

No, ‘Play Motel’ smirks at me like the seedy receptionist (Mario Novelli) who hands the room key to the succession of wealthy gentlemen who use the facility for assignations with call girls. Smirks at me knowing that every time I reference the film’s title in this review, I’ll wince inwardly as I type the nine letters that make up ‘Play Motel’.

Seriously, I’d have more respect for this film if it were called ‘The Fuck Pad Murders’.


But things are as they are, and this is the Winter of Discontent. Dubious and depraved works of exploitation are the season’s raison d’etre and for better or for worse (actually, for worse; definitely for worse) ‘Play Motel’ was where this evening’s viewing led me. So let’s collect our key from the smirking receptionist, down a shot of J&B at the bar, trundle along to our seedy room and hope that it had a deep clean after the previous tenant departed. Now, let’s slip into something more sleazy and survey the, ahem, delights on offer.

‘Play Motel’ tells the fairly simple story of a blackmail scam in which the aforementioned wealthy gentlemen (and, in one remarkably unoriginal twist, the wife of a well-connected individual) are lured to said establishment under the promise of all kinds of hanky-panky, only to receive some glossies in the post a few days later and a demand for ready cash. The movie starts with glacial businessman Rinaldo Cortesi (Enzo Fisichella) meeting model/call girl Loredana (Marina Hedman) for some kinky role play. Upon receipt of the compromising photos, he seeks advice of his lawyer. This eminently professional gentleman advises him to cough up the readies. Unbeknownst to Cortesi, however, his wife Luisa (Patrizia Behn) stumbles upon the pictures and does what Cortesi has been warned not to: go to the police.

Enter Inspector Toselli (Vittorio Ripamonti), who sets out to track down Loredana. Recognising her likeness in an adult magazine (“this publication was in the files relating to porn,” says the lackey who retrieves said literature from the evidence room, miraculously keeping a straight face as he delivers this deathless line), Toselli tracks Loredana to the photographer, Willy (Mario Cutini), who works for said magazine.


Any reasonably competent armchair sleuth should be able to fit the pieces together, and indeed Gariazzi (writing as well as directing, and doing both with precious little competency) pretty much plays his hand about half way in, saving just one twist for the finale. What does work, however, is the amount of false starts that occupy the first third of the 90 minute running time. Cortesi seems like the protagonist for the first few minutes: an early scene where his lawyer and his wife are shown having an affair seems to set up a tangled web of personal and professional relationships, but before any of them can unravel, the baton of the narrative passes suddenly to Luisa. Her initial consultation with Toselli not resulting in much urgency on the good detective’s part, she starts snooping. But this development is swiftly curtailed and ‘Play Motel’ settles for quarter of an hour or so into a boilerplate procedural with Toselli taking the reins. Only at around the half hour mark does aspiring actor Roberto Vinci (Lovelock) enter the proceedings, vivacious girlfriend Patrizia (Anna Maria Rizzoli) in tow.

And even though Lovelock gets main billing, Vinci goes on to do a remarkable amount of fuck all for most of the next hour. Caught up in proceedings when a corpse is dumped in his car boot, Vinci is recruited by Toselli when the latter realises that Willy and the publishers of the wank mag will recognise him from previous busts when he was heading up the vice squad. Evidently there must have been budget cuts in the Italian police force at the time and the first to go were the undercover officers, but still the casualness – nay, the indifference – with which a seasoned detective happily drags in a civilian off the street and pretty much pins upon him the onus of the entire investigation is a big ask in terms of suspension-of-disbelief. That Vinci is reluctant is perfectly understandable. That Patrizia rushes headlong into the investigation, putting herself in harms way with a toss of the hair and a flash of the pearly whites, can have no rationalisation other than the requirement in these kind of films for attractive women to sashay around in perilous scenarios looking sexy as all hell.

Only this is where my enthusiasm for trash movies and tendency to exaggerated threaten to overwhelm the review. For while Rizzoli is certainly attractive, there is nothing sexy about ‘Play Motel’. This is a film where there’s a nude scene every five minutes or so, where a sequence involving Patrizia posing topless for Willy in order to gain access to his studio seems to run longer than ‘Satantango’ played at half-speed. Where even the occasional jolting hardcore insert only serves to reinforce how grubby and free of frisson the whole thing is.

It left me feeling that I might just have to check in at the ‘Slaughter Hotel’ just for a taste of sophistication. Dear God, the ‘Slaughter Hotel’!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Eugenie de Sade


Some directors return obsessively to a single theme throughout their filmography. For Peckinpah, it was the idea of men outliving their times; for Bergman, the struggle for faith in a Godless world. For Jesús (Jess) Franco, it was naked ladies the work of the Marquis de Sade, particularly his 1795 novel ‘Philosophy in the Boudoir’. In this work, siblings Madame de Sainte-Ange and Le Chevalier de Mirval enlist the assistance of Chevalier’s bisexual friend Dolmancé in persuading the virginal (and underage) Eugenie into a life of libertinism.

Franco first approached the material in 1969 with the subtly titled ‘Eugenie: The Story of Her Voyage into Perversion’ starring Marie Liljedahl and Maria Rohm. Tonight’s offering, ‘Eugenie de Sade’, followed in 1970 – arguably Franco’s annis mirabilis, during which he also made ‘Nightmares Come at Night’, ‘Vampyros Lesbos’, ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’ and ‘The Devil Came from Akasava’.

He returned to all things Sadean with ‘De Sade’s Juliette’ in 1975, a sort-of companion piece to the earlier ‘Marquis de Sade: Justine’ (1968), ‘Erotic Symphony’ in 1979 and ‘Eugenie: The Story of a Perversion’ (with Katja Bienert as the titular nymphet) in 1980, the same year he made ‘Sadomania: Hell of Passion’, a women-in-prison film whose title is its only real connection to the writings of de Sade. Naturally, for such a prolific director, a certain reworking of material (did I put that politely enough?) is evident in the Franco canon, and many of his other films, while ostensibly not de Sade adaptation, are steeped in the admixture of pseudo-intellectual waffle and dirty sex that was the Marquis’s stock-in-trade.

So what makes ‘Eugenie de Sade’ (a.k.a. ‘Eugenia’, ‘De Sade 2000’ and ‘Eugenie Sex Happening’) stand out amongst Franco’s other takes on the material? What makes it ripe for evaluation on Winter of Discontent? Apart from the fact that it was streaming for free and I haven’t update this blog in a week, you mean?


‘Eugenie de Sade’ conflates Madame de Sainte-Ange and Le Chevalier de Mirval from ‘Philosophy in the Boudoir’ into one character: novelist Albert de Franval (Paul Muller, who I would describe as a Franco regular except that Franco only ever worked with regulars), and ups the ante on the controversy stakes by making Eugenie (Soledad Miranda) his step-daughter. The film unfolds in flashback as a badly injured Eugenie recounts to investigative writer Attila Tanner (Franco himself) the events that led to her hospitalisation. The Tanner character is an interesting diversion from the source material, reminiscent less of anyone in de Sade than of Clare Quilty in Nabakov’s ‘Lolita’ as his path crosses Albert and Eugenie’s at key moments in the story.

Although “story” is probably pushing it as a description. The glacially paced 91 minutes of this opus consist of Eugenie discovering pornographic works in her step-father’s library; her step-father discovering that she’s discovered them and demonstrated a certain moral indifference by way of response; and Albert and Eugenie then embarking on a quasi-incestuous sex ‘n’ killing spree, for all the world as if Humbert Humbert and Delores Haze had decided to get their Bonnie and Clyde funk on.*

Although “sex ‘n’ killing spree” is also pushing it as a description. By rights, ‘Eugenie de Sade’ ought to be a fast-paced sleazy romp. It’s actually glacial in both its pacing and its aesthetic. From its wintry landscapes to its concrete cityscapes, its low-lit clubs to its bland hotel rooms, the film plays out in a world leeched of colour. Even its most lurid set pieces – a kinky photoshoot that ends in murder; a drinking game that ends in seduction and death – proceed with not only a lack of narrative urgency or tension, but also very little in the way of erotic frisson. It’s as if Franco had made a specific artistic decision from the outset to use the film as a comment on the banality of evil.


Compared to the sunny location work and lifestyle porn of ‘Eugenie: The Story of Her Voyage into Perversion’, or the unremitting focus on pain-as-pleasure in ‘Eugenie: The Story of a Perversion’, and this middle chapter in what can only be considered as a series of variations on a theme, emerges as the one in which the cruel self-centeredness of de Sade’s basic philosophy (as long as you’re the one taking pleasure, it doesn’t matter who gets hurt) is neither thrillingly sexy or orgiastically vicious, but steeped in ennui. This reading is emphasised by the presence of Soledad Miranda – a stunning actress, but a blank canvas for a director’s obsessions if ever there was one. She moves languidly and disinterestedly through the film, occasionally twitching out a half-smile that looks like it was carved with a razor blade, then sinking back into a sort of trance-like boredom.

The banality of evil, all right; but your average priest would still kick a hole in stained glass window just to get the slightest taste of it.


*Thankfully Franco makes Eugenie of age. Doesn’t excuse any of the other stuff that goes on the film, but – hey – it’s nice to observe some proprieties.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Dead Boyz Don’t Scream


Meet the “three stooges”. No, not Larry, Curly and Moe. This trio are beefy male models: Christian (Christian Mousel), Todd (Logan Hilyard) and Anthony (Zack Vazquez). They’ve been given this less-than-flattering appellation by their agent Tess (Victoria Redstall). As the film opens, Tess has landed them a shoot with commercial photographer Roz (Monique Parent) that might lead to a contract with fashion boutique Greg Parry (trust me, this is a lot wittier on paper than in the actual film). Roz is also keen to have them pose for a coffee table book of cowboy-themed gay porn, but Tess feels this would be a backwards step in terms of their career. The stooges’ rivals – for both the Greg Parry contract and the gay cowboy book – are “the poodles”, Dieter (Ewan French) and Peter (Aaron Mark), so called for the corruption of their Germanic surname Pudl. The Pudl brothers are camper than a row of tents and seem overly tactile with each other. As Roz puts it in the film’s one genuinely amusing line, “I think the rumours might be true: that their parents met at a family reunion.”

The, ahem, story gets underway after their photoshoot with Roz when they hook up with Latino loverboy buddy Jimmy (Anthony Giraud) and go and meet Christian’s lifelong friend Callie (Catherine Wreford), who’s just flown in from Vancouver. Christian behaves as if Callie is some fragile dreamy romantic type whereas it soon becomes clear that she just wants to get wasted and party with the hunks. Said activity takes a turn for the worst that leaves Callie traumatised and Jimmy dead after a plunge from a balcony that might have been an accident but probably wasn’t.

At this point, Tess steps in to smooth things over, pay Callie off and bundle her back on a plane. Changing her mind about the gay cowboy book, Tess decides that a few days in the wilds will serve the dual purpose of allowing her to keep a close eye on her troublesome charges, and remove them from the spotlight of any negative publicity. And there’s also the incentive of a dalliance with her forest ranger girlfriend Belle (Gina Gian). Only things go pear-shaped very early on: Christian has a spectacular meltdown, rivalries and jealousy come to the fore, and then – hey ho, whaddaya know – people start dying in grisly (if poorly staged) fashion.
 

Directed by Marc Saltarelli, whose only feature this is (he’s made a number of shorts and contributed to the portmanteau film ‘Green Briefs’), ‘Dead Boyz Don’t Scream’ is a kind of homoerotic ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’, with bulging abs and taut buttocks instead of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s cleavage. It offers the alternative of hunky men being chased through the woods in the underwear instead of nubile women (one scene has an axe descend on Todd’s back, miss by a millisecond and the blade snick his tightie whities insteads; his terrified flight through the darkness continues au naturel). Just in case you’re wondering: yes – this kind of role reversal is the only satirical card the film has to play.

With originality pretty much off the menu, the thankfully sparse 78 minute running time devolves to an exercise in playing spot-the-homage and second-guessing the denouement. Is the killer an unhinged Christian? Or has Belle, whose stated intent is for Tess to leave her job and move to the woods with her, trying to accelerate the process by way of decimating Tess’s client base? Or are the poodles taking out their competition for the Greg Parry gig? Or is it Roz’s assistant Kimba (Kenyetta Lethridge), who seems to be floating around in the background without actually having anything to do with the proceedings? Or are there deeper secrets that connect the characters?

Or is ‘Dead Boyz Don’t Scream’ simply a camp piece of trash in which absolutely none of this malarkey matters? And, indeed, what the hell is it doing on the Winter of Discontent? Well, it was available to watch for free and I’d been drinking the previous evening. So yah boo, it’s on Winter of Discontent and I’m not wrapping up this review till I’ve found something to say about it.


And you don’t have to scratch the surface of the film too vigorously (it’s all surface anyway) to note two things. Firstly, for a film so determinedly tailored to a gay audience – every photoshoot Roz does after the stooges and the poodles arrive the ranch involves full-frontal male nudity, the fetishisation of western imagery and the kind of penis-to-screen-time ratio you’d normally expect in a Derek Jarman film – its only sex scene makes Callie the focus. Sure, there’s plenty of close-ups of the boys’ muscular physiques as they eye each other up while they wait their turn, but this is essentially less a depiction of group sex or bisexual activity than three latent gay men sublimating what they actually want to do into a take-their-turn demonstration of heterosexual conformity.

Secondly – and the target audience is worth reiterating – ‘Dead Boyz Don’t Scream’ is mind-bogglingly homophobic. From its depiction of Tess and Belle’s relationship by way of a few chaste kisses to saddling Belle with the surname Van Dyke, never mind transposing the homoerotic tension between the stooges to the incestuous almost-consummation between Dieter and Peter , the film seems to loathe both its characters and its audience. That the twist delivers an equally cynical slap in the face to gender reassignment – the killer’s motivation is revealed in a line of such jaw-dropping what-the-fuckery that “the killer developed a morbid fear of tennis balls bouncing in the night” from ‘A Blade in the Dark’ comes across as a masterpiece of psychological exposition in comparison – leaves Saltarelli and screenwriter Rick Jensen’s motivations even murkier than their understanding of how to stage comedy.

Did I mention that it’s a horror-comedy, by the way? It is. Allegedly. It’s just not fucking funny.

Monday, November 02, 2015

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The ABCs of Death


Beware the anthology (or portmanteau) film. Two problems dog the format: weak or contrived framing device, and inconsistency across its stories. The only anthology film I’ve seen that avoids these problems – that is, in fact, an out-and-out work of art – is Masaki Kobayashi’s ‘Kwaidan’; that all four of the tales it comprises were realised by one director is a good indication of why it succeeds where others fail. Even the Ealing Studios classic ‘Dead of Night’ takes a misstep with Charles Crichton’s over-egged segment about the rival golfers.

‘The ABCs of Death’ gets at least one thing right: it jettisons the necessity for a framing narrative. Instead it delivers, one after the other, 26 meditations on death, each by a different director. Some are subtitled, some are animated, some are black comedies, some are serious dramas, some are surreal, some predictable and others just downright fucking sick (I’m looking at you, Timo Tjahjanto, Jason Eisener and Yoshihiro Nishimura). To describe it as a mixed bag is being understated. To trot out the “too many cooks spoil the broth” cliché is both lazy and not quite accurate: given the degree of scatological obsession on display here, the cooks in question aren’t just spoiling the broth – a fair number of them are also taking a poo in it.

At least four segments take place in lavatories (the twentieth story is in fact called ‘T is for Toilet’), and only Ti West’s ‘M is for Miscarriage’ actually bothers to generate any real social horror from the setting. Elsewhere, Noboru Iguchi’s ‘F is for Fart’ tries to elevate flatulence and soft-core lesbianism to the level of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Bear in mind that Iguchi is the classy motherfucker who gave the world enema fetish porn videos before moving into the, ahem, mainstream with the likes of ‘The Machine Girl’, ‘RoboGeisha’ and ‘Zombie Ass’, and you’ll probably have some idea of how far short he falls.


Sex is predictably omnipresent. Banjong Pisanthanakun’s ‘N is for Nuptials’ is basically a shaggy dog story where an indiscreet mynah bird royally buggers up a marriage proposal. ’O is for Orgasm’ sees Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet serves the same pretentious mishmash of homages, arthouse obscurism and style-over-content that marred their tedious feature-length debut ‘Amer’ (itself a portmanteau outing that never adds up to the sum of its parts). ‘V is for Vagitus (The Cry of a Newborn Baby)’ strays from the horror genre in favour of a dystopian sci-fi mini-epic about patriarchal governments and reproduction. The most disturbing of this set is Tjahjanto’s ‘L is for Libido’, which starts out as a weird conflation of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and ‘Fight Club’ (had he been given another letter of the alphabet, Tjahjanto could just as easily have presented the piece as ‘W is for Wank’), peaks with the best visual pun on impotence I’ve seen, and would have been utterly brilliant if he’d faded to red at that point. As it, he plunges on into ‘Serbian Film’ territory and the last minute or so leaves a fetid taste in the mouth.

But not as bad a taste as Eisener leaves with ‘Y is for Youngblood’, a misjudged and leeringly unpleasant tale of a zombie deer taking revenge on the paedophile who coaxed a young boy into killing it. Conceptually, had the paedophile been less of a rubber-faced cliché and his actions been suggested rather than Eisener wallowing in them like a pig in a particularly odious patch of excrement, the material could have worked. This could – and should – have been a serious psychological drama (is the deer in the protagonist’s mind? is he being driven towards insanity or immolation by his own guilt?), but as anyone who’s seen Eisener’s ‘Treevenge’ or ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’ will know, all he’s interested in is upping the ante on already well established genre tropes and grossing out his audience. He has no moral compass as a filmmaker, and probably no idea that life actually happens outside of a ribbon of celluloid running through a projector.

It’s a damn shame that so many problems plague ‘The ABCs of Death’, with the exception of ‘F is for Fart’ its first third establishes a fairly high standard. Nacho Vigalondo’s ‘A is for Apocalypse’ is the perfect opener for a portmanteau film: stylistically bold, disorientating and with a killer punchline; Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s ‘B is for Bigfoot’ quite simply owns the urban myth subgenre; Ernesto Diaz Espinoza’s ‘C is for Cycle’ comes on like a distilled version of Christopher Smith’s ‘Triangle’; Marcel Sarmiento’s provocative ‘D is for Dogfight’ is the film’s high point, a wordless dissertation on bloodsports, audience complicity and the death of innocence – hard to watch but never less than aesthetically valid, it shows up a lot of the later segments for the pabulum that they are; Angela Bettis’s ‘E is for Exterminate’ uses mordant humour to document those tiny acts of cruelty (in this case the killing of a spider) that so many of us rationalise; and ‘G is for Gravity’ uses the first-person POV to chilling effect in a dialogue-free description of a suicide.


Interesting that ‘Dogfight’ and ‘Gravity’ eschew dialogue. Ben Wheatley’s ‘U is for Unearthed’ – the film’s other genuine standout – uses the same technique (first person POV with so little dialogue as to be neglible) to capture the final moments of a fleeing vampire as it’s run to ground and staked. It’s a simple enough reversal of a done-to-death scene, but Wheatley gets the absolute maximum out of his couple of minutes. 

There are one or two other offerings that are worthwhile – Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s black comedy ‘Q is for Quack’ and Srdan Spasojevic’s bizarre, hallucinatory and brilliantly imagistic ‘R is for Removed’ deserve honourable mentions – but overall the variance in quality control isn’t just obvious, it’s a deal-breaker for long stretches of the two hour plus running time, particularly in the final stretches where headfucks like Jon Schnepp’s ‘W is for WTF!’ and Nishimura’s ‘Z is for Zetsumetsu (Extinction)’ rub shoulders with Eisener’s stinker and Xavier Gens’s ‘XXL’, where all the viscera a bathtub can hold can’t make up for how tedious and predictable his treatment of the material is.

Even at a few minutes apiece, presenting 26 separate stories, in such wilfully divergent styles, as a single coherent movie was always going to prove something of a poisoned chalice. I’ve not seen ‘The ABCs of Death 2’, but I understand the producers attempted to even things out tonally by focusing on black comedy. Hmmm. Maybe it’ll crop up on Winter of Discontent, maybe it won’t.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Filth and depravity


The thing I hate the most about Halloween being over is that everyone turns into a schmaltzy bastard and immediately starts banging on about Christmas, family, goodwill to men and rampant materialism. Just one fucking day after we were all dressing up as the dead and demanding free shit in return for not egging our neighbours’ windows or painting fluorescent green skulls on their car windscreen.

Goodwill to all men, my arse!

Here on The Agitation of the Mind, we’re having none of it. Here on The Agitation of the Mind we’re about to embark on a two-month odyssey through the sewers of cinematic cynicism. Is it dark? Is it nasty? Is it exploitative? If so, I’ll be checking it out and reporting back.

We’ll be kicking off tomorrow with an evaluation of how well indie horror does tackling the portmanteau format. After that … well, anything goes. Your horripilant host is currently interrogating the filth delivery system known as the internet to determine what depraved delights are available to stream. Stay tuned.